This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.
In her 1990 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler connected the conceptual category of performativity to the formation of the gendered subject. A performative, in its early usage by speech act theorist J. L. Austin, names a type of utterance (such as “I do” or “shame on you”) that, by virtue of a felicitous context and relation to authority, accomplishes the action that it also announces (Austin  1975; Felman 2003; Sedgwick 1993). In a collection of lectures first published in 1962 as How to Do Things with Words, the terms of Austin's classifying system proliferate and repeatedly break down in a demonstration of how even descriptive language's performativity — what it does — calls into question its referentiality — what it seems to point to in the world (Austin 1975). Gender Trouble braids speech act theory's insight into the scandalous power of language to posit what it describes together with strands of Lacanian psychoanalysis and poststructuralism that show that this positing power belongs to language, to “discourse” in a Foucauldian register, and precisely not to the authority of the intending subject employing language that Austin started with.
Yet a rhetoric of performativity has developed that strips it of this theoretical heritage and turns it into a tool for defending the power of the subject, through the conscious presence of agential intention, to intervene in the discourse of gender and so to free that discourse of its injurious potential. To paraphrase the argument: “Because I choose my gendered practices, I subvert their harmful functions.”1 This rhetoric of performativity is a much-weakened strain of the one articulated in Gender Trouble and across Butler's subsequent work. In a sense, it reduces performativity to performance: that is, it focuses on a single instance of a gendered practice and so forgets the historical chain of repetitions that makes each instance possible. Moreover, this weakened rhetoric of performativity allocates the positing power of the performative (whether speech act or gendering practice) back to an impenetrable, invulnerable, and independent subject that Butler went to psychoanalytic theory and deconstruction precisely to expose — as already pierced, already vulnerable, and already conditioned by a linguistic and therefore rhetorical relation. The subject does not wield the discursive power of the performative. Discourse, language itself, first en-genders the subject as an effect of language's positing power.
Transgender studies is inextricably invested in the question of intentionality: is the subject of gender in charge or not? For some, to answer in the negative runs the risk of also negating the “experience of gender identity's profound ontological claim … about the realness and inalienability of that identity” (Stryker and Whittle 2006: 183). And yet, as Sandy Stone argues in her 1987 field-inaugurating essay, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” to treat (trans)sexuality as an essential component of one's being actually forecloses the analysis of the complex and even contradictory “chaos of lived gendered experience” ( 2006: 230). Treating sex or gender as if they were unalterable facts of our being, or, on the other hand, treating them as if they were the radically alterable selections of a freely choosing subject, or even treating them as the culturally determined products of a socially constructed reality — each of these alternatives misses the significance of performativity for any theory of gender. The subject of gender is not in charge, but exposed, addressed by the performative power of gender rather than the addresser of it. Stone points our attention both beyond an essentialist understanding of gender and directly at its lived embodiment. The performative power of gender is its ceaseless materialization of gender in the flesh. It is the power not only to make bodies legible as having gendered characteristics but also to make gender itself take place through bodies. Gender is performative because it inscribes itself as a discourse each time it inscribes itself on a body, as a lived experience. As Susan Stryker argues in a 1998 special transgender issue of GLQ, lived experience “provide[s] a site for grappling with the problematic relation between principles of performativity and a materiality that, while inescapable, defies stable representation” (147). Through the rich yield of lived experience, transgender studies must pursue the question of performativity beyond representation. Transgender studies is positioned, at the intersection of gender's discursivity and its materiality, to open vital questions about the (re)formation of gender, subjectivity, bodies, and the body. These questions demand a performative theory that can also account for the unrepresentable experience of gender, of being addressed by gender, and so being tossed into a rhetorical relation with it. Performativity is the connection between gendered embodiment, gendered experience, and gender's discursive force.